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The present 3-D craze seems to have plateau'ed for the moment, and is probably awaiting a new infusion of James Cameron innovation. Most of the shows being released in the process are either computer animated or are effects-heavy fantasies, and ordinary live action dramas haven't embraced the format. The industry did it to itself by cranking up admission prices and jamming the schedules with fake 3-D product, movies jiggered into depth after the fact in post production. The creative 3-D horror film The Hole was squeezed out of a release slot because a big studio offered a better deal with a big CGI film -- in fake 3-D. I didn't see the new 3-D Godzilla theatrically, but the 3-D Blu-ray disc didn't work for me at all.
The fun is now in vintage product from the early '50s 3-D boom. The four big Warners pictures that everybody wanted to see were all released in 1953: John Wayne in Hondo, Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, Andre de Toth's House of Wax, and George Sidney's Cole Porter Musical Kiss Me Kate. Now we only lack the Wayne picture, which is probably controlled by Paramount/Batjac. The horror film has been revived over the years but 3-D screenings of the other three were rare occasions, in New York or Los Angeles repertory theater owners with special studio connections. For the record, I saw It Came from Outer Space around 1972 in a little theater on Hollywood Blvd. called The World; it was a rare experience indeed. Then the Tiffany Theater on the Sunset Strip had a festival in 1979. Friend and dedicated 3-D aficionado Robert Swarthe attended opening nights for both Dial M and Kate that were projection disasters, with both framing and sync out of kilter. I saw both shows on Night Two and they were perfect. Before digital, 3-D movie-going was a dodgy business.
With the newest digital 3-D all alignment and sync problems have been eliminated, provided that the move is correctly encoded. Kiss Me Kate has an excellent 3-D reputation . The depth effect is excellent and always present without being intrusive. More on this below. The new 3-D disc is available as a stand-alone item or in a boxed set with The Band Wagon, Calamity Jane and Singin' in the Rain.
Kiss Me Kate may not be able to match the hi-falutin' Art of An American in Paris but it showcases MGM second-string musical talent at their very best. The unofficial inheritors of the Nelson-MacDonald operetta genre, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel are in fine form. Grayson can be irksome to purists but she handles the broad comedy well. Keel is magnificent as theatrical blowhard Fred Graham, the Ham of Hams. Add fourteen zingy Cole Porter songs and some terrific dancing and it's a show to remember. The energetic dancing is a mix of standard tap and some new moves by a major talent, Bob Fosse.
The story is pure backstage corn. A Broadway production of The Taming of the Shrew is fractured by the re-teaming of the now divorced showbiz couple Lilli Vanessi (Kathryn Grayson) and Fred Graham (Howard Keel). Both are distracted by new alliances, especially the nervy tap dancer Lois Lane (Ann Miller). A pair of gangsters (James Whitmore & Keenan Wynn) are dogging Fred, eeking repayment for a debt. The solution is to write them into the show.
Made the same year as the classic The Band Wagon, Kiss Me Kate has some of the same fake-but-fun showbiz gusto. Grayson and Keel each made a routine musical or two, and there's also their 1951 Show Boat, which has pretty singing but in all other ways pales before the James Whale version. But in Kate you'd think Grayson and Keel were the industry's top stars. Keel would like to be Rex Harrison but in the fruity Shakespearean costumes he at times resembles a preening John Barrymore or grinning Douglas Fairbanks. Several of the songs are presented in the old operetta style, yet Grayson and Keel sell the schmaltzy ballad "Wunderbar" with gusto.
The non-stop humor ranges from Keel's inexhaustible vanity to the careful snubs Ann Miller aims at Grayson. The script isn't as laid-back or natural as the Astaire picture, but it has plenty of clever dialogue. Cole Porter's playful lyrics sneak in sly puns: "...kick 'em right in the Coriolanus!"
All of the dance numbers are exciting, specifically Ann Miller's "Too Darn Hot", "Why Can't you Behave?" and the jazzy highlight, "From This Moment On". Bob Fosse had previously performed in some okay MGM musical numbers but this is the one that put him on the map. He and his partner Carol Haney made a bit of history performing a slack-posed set of moves, snapping their fingers. It's breathtaking dancing of a new kind, separate from the established Kelly & Astaire schools. 1
Kate proves an excellent an opportunity for youthful talents like Fosse, Tommy Rall and Bobby Van to show their stuff. They came along just as the musical department was folding, and didn't get the chance to build bigger careers (at least not yet). The impressive Bobby Van remains in a handful of little novelty numbers, shoehorned into lesser MGM musicals.
The movie never slows down. Ann Miller is a show business, a dervish with a Dazzledent smile and limitless energy. She all but bounces off the walls in the opening "Too Darn Hot" tap spectacle performed in a space not much bigger than a coffee table. The amiable non-musical stars Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore augment their standard comedy relief with their own number "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," an ode to the thick-ear patrons. The fun is in the mismatch. Wynn appears able and ready to perform anything anywhere, in any style, while Whitmore grins and plays dumb-clumsy. They're a break from the assertive musical talent around them; audiences usually approve.
Proof of the film's success comes at the finale, with the Shakespeare dialogue has Grayson's shrew submit to Keel both in the play and in the play-within-a-play. We're not at all concerned with what's being said about real male-female relations. It's the music, of course, and Keel and Grayson are a pro team. After many viewings I tend to concentrate on the virtuoso dancing and precise camerawork in the musical numbers. When Fosse or Haney performs a dance leap the camera hops as well, dancing with them. The camera operator was presumably piloting a whorl-head device, twirling two flywheels to tilt and pan, as on an etch-a-sketch. As far as I'm concerned, that unheralded 'technician' is a performing artist too.
The Warner Home Video 3-D Blu-ray of Kiss Me Kate is the most 'dimensionally pleasing' of the '50s 3-D pictures yet out on Blu-ray. Charles Rosher's theatrical lighting separates foregrounds and backgrounds from the actors. Instead of staying back during musical numbers the 3-D camera moves in close, tracks the performers and reacts to their motions. The fiercely tapping Ann Miller all but charges the camera, playfully twisting her fan. For "From this Moment On" a previously flat stage background becomes a deep perspective set with a series of arches diminishing toward a vanishing point. The dancers jump and swing through the arches in syncopated rhythm, in depth. Director Sidney and cameraman Charles Rosher use the 3-D well on ordinary scenes too. Business with Keel and Grayson in their dressing rooms is composed through windows, turning the screen into bright little dioramas.
Ann tosses scarves, her fan and what have you at the camera. More '3 Stooges' eye-poke nonsense is inserted here and there through the show, making the 3-D version actually longer than the 2-D encoding. At the beginning of the play-within-a-film, Bob Fosse and Bobby Van pelt the camera with confetti and even a bucket of water, addling at least ten or fifteen seconds to the running time. I'm told a couple of other inserts of this kind are also present. At 110 minutes Kiss Me Kate is rather long for a 3-D picture. There's only one intermission break, so those film reels had to be really big.
Kiss Me Kate 3-D is also available on Warners' Musicals: 4-Movie Collection, with Blu-rays of The Band Wagon, Calamity Jane and Singin' in the Rain.
The quality report on my new 4K LG is favorable. Filmed in glorious Ansco color, some hues seem a bit brighter than they should, and costumes combining red, orange and yellow can look a little odd. But face tones are fine and the blacks are deep. It looks at least as rich as the WarnerColor on Dial M and Wax, and far less grainy. The MGM optical department and Technicolor (for original prints) really went wild on a couple of shots involving mattes. A rooftop dance between Tommy Rall and Ann Miller uses a 3-D matte showing the buildings and city around them. The painted areas seem to be in 3-D as well. The final shot is a wide view of the theater, interrupted by a 3-D image of Grayson and Keel zooming up into a giant close-up. They materialize out of the air like giants.
As is he norm with Warners Blu-rays, the extras are limited to whatever was on the old DVD. A short but informative featurette hosted by Ann Miller gives a general overview of the show, pointing out a number of things I certainly missed, like choreographer Hermes Pan's quick cameo as a sailor. A second short subject is a travelogue on New York City. Its only Kate connection is a single shot where Ann Miller descends a hotel staircase.
I played parts of the 2-D version and it looks slightly less vivid to me, beyond the missing dimension, of course. The saucy original poster art on the snapper package cover looks like something that belongs on a calendar in a car repair shop ... Grayson is vivacious, but not that sexy!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Kiss Me Kate Blu-ray 3-D + 2-D rates:
1. Carol Haney was one of the best but least-filmed musical comedy talents of the time. She also plays the hilarious comedy lead in The Pajama Game -- you know, the office girl with the hidden key who takes John Raitt to Hernando's Hideaway. When Fosse made the leap from dancer to choreographer-director in New York, "From This Moment On" reportedly served as his resumé.. Gwen Verdon encouraged prospective directors and producers to see it.
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T'was Ever Thus.